Open an Idea File with Thomas Alva Edison
Edison, the Patron Saint
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), born in Ohio, USA, was an inventor par excellence, who accumulated 2,332 patents worldwide for his inventions, 1,093 of which were in the United States of America, and the others with global reach and validity.
He was the youngest of seven children. His mother, Nancy Elliott, was an excellent school teacher and gave Edison needed private coaching. Edison later said about his mother, “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Thomas Edison had scarlet fever as a child, which left him almost deaf. He was a restless but curious boy who got into trouble at school. As the story goes, his teacher called him “addled,” which means slow or dim. Edison’s mother was frustrated with the school. She knew her son could learn. She decided to teach him at home instead. Her ideas worked. She could teach Edison everything she knew with much ease. He started reading books from the library and teaching himself further. Edison’s mother even let him set up a chemistry lab in the basement, against the objections of his father, Samuel Edison. Thomas writes about his mother further: “My mother was the making of me. She was so true and so sure of me, I felt that I had someone to live for -- someone I must not disappoint. The memory of my mother will always be a blessing to me.”
Edison was the stereotype and the hero of the American industrial revolution, rags-to riches entrepreneur who brought enormous improvements to the lives of millions of people. At his early age, Edison became interested in telegraphy and worked as a freelance travelling telegraphist. When he was twelve, he started publishing and selling a newspaper to train passengers. Once Edison started a fire on a train car doing chemistry experiments and was consequently kicked off the train. At age fifteen, he began operating telegraphs. At age twenty two, he invented an improved stock ticker and stock printer for the New York Stock Exchange. He was paid $40,000 for this invention -- a lot of money back then. Edison used the money to take care of his ill mother and invested the rest for his entrepreneurial investigations. He also made improvements to telegraphs for Western Union and earned a lot of money from its success.
Among the highlights of his career were the invention of the incandescent electric light bulb, which led to widespread domestic lighting, the invention and development of the phonograph, improvements to motion picture equipment and the telephone, and the discovery of the Edison effect, thermionic emission, the foundation of the electronics industry. To exploit his many inventions, Edison also founded several companies, including the Edison Telephone Company and the Edison General Electric Company (which later merged to form the world-famous General Electric).
Idea File of Edison
The architecture of Edison’s creative efforts is revealed in the book published posthumously, Diary and Sundry Observations (Greenwood Press, 1968). The book illustrates how Edison cultivated the habit of creative thinking, added with his sheer power of perseverance and open-minded inquiry. It speaks about how Edison kept track of good ideas, either his own or those generated by others. Edison maintained an extensive idea file to stimulate new perspectives for the problems seeking creative solutions. Idea File was the key to the successful and relentless innovations introduced by Thomas Alva Edison.
According to Edison, an idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to a specific problem. One has to relate and synergize many ideas as solution to a given problem. The pool of successful ideas was encapsulated into the idea file Edison created over time. He also brought them to fruition, consolidating into thousands of patents bearing his name. His brute determination helped him to surpass all odds and gave him an edge over his contemporaries. His mind was completely focused and was prepared to take creative challenges by their horns. Edison immersed himself into the crux of the problem, delving deep into them and emerging out with amazingly new solutions.
Of course, he had detractors who complained against him of stealing their pretty ideas and churning money out of them. The notorious fight between Joseph Swan and Edison over the ‘electric lamp’ patent is well known. Edison made a minor tweak making the incandescent bulb developed by Swan to last much longer and could win a patent over it. It is reported that Swan sued Edison for patent infringement, and the British courts ruled against Edison. As punishment, Edison had to make Swan a partner in his electric company. However, eventually Edison could win full credit for the invention of the incandescent bulb and could effectively keep everyone else out of business for long times. The brute power of patents!
How to develop an Idea File
Edison provides rules for making an idea file and to use it effectively to generate creative solutions.
- Carefully record your ideas: Jot them down on note cards and store them in a file box. Do not forget to indicate the source where you found the idea for future reference. Also mention the cross reference, if any idea fits into multiple categories.
- Suitably retrieve ideas from idea files: Choose those ideas that according to you solve the problem at hand. Do not exclude any idea that could lead to a solution. Rather follow just one Selection Rule in the process: Select the ideas that contain attributes closely related to the attributes of your subject.
- Judiciously examine the ideas: Once you have pulled out a large number of ideas from your idea file, examine them individually. Check whether an idea entirely fits into a plausible solution or only a part of it.
- Synergize different ideas: Try modifying ideas to better suit the solution of the problem.
No idea is a bad idea
For Edison, failures were but stepping stones to success, in real terms. A long-time associate of Edison, Walter S. Mallory, recalls in his 1910 biography on Edison: Edison: His Life and Inventions, how Edison actually practiced it. Edison had been working for months on a nickel-iron battery. Mallory visited Edison in his shop and learned his friend had tried more than 9,000 experiments for the battery and none had been successful. Mallory writes:
“In view of this immense amount of thought and labour, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’”
“Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’”
Edison cherished neither exaggerated open-mindedness nor excuses for his failures. Rather, as the incident reveals, Edison actually made use of failed ideas to steer towards his target solution. Thomas Alva Edison was made of such stuff!